I sat on a stool at the centre of the bar, ordered a beer, and refreshed the feeds on my mobile. I waited for something to happen. A basketball game played on several monitors at once. The bar had red fake leather booths, Christmas lights and a female bartender. A lesbian couple cuddled at one end of it. At the other end, around the corner from where I sat, a bespectacled man my age watched the game. As the only man and the only woman alone at the bar, we looked at each other. Then I pretended to watch the game on a monitor that allowed me to look the other way. He turned his back to me to watch the monitor over the pool tables, where the pool players now applauded some exploit.
I waited to be approached. A few stools down, two men broke into laughter. One came over to show me why they were laughing. He handed me his mobile and pointed to a Facebook post. I read the post and smiled obligingly. The man returned to his seat. I drank my beer.
I allowed myself a moment’s longing for my living room and its couch. The couch had a woollen blanket woven in a Navajo-inspired pattern, exemplary of a trend in San Francisco that a friend of mine calls ‘White People Gone Wild’. When I moved in, the receipt for the blanket was on the mantelpiece. It had cost $228. There was a cast-iron gas stove in the fireplace. I had fiddled with the knobs and the gas, but couldn’t figure out how to ignite it. At night the room had the temperature and pallor of a corpse. There was no television.
I returned to my mobile and opened OK Cupid, the free internet dating service. I refreshed the feed that indicated whether other people in the neighbourhood were sitting alone in bars. This service is called OK Cupid Locals. An OK Cupid Locals invitation has to start with the word ‘Let’s’:
Let’s smoke a joint and hang out ☺
Let’s grab a brunch, lunch, beer or some such for some friendly Saturday revelry.
Let’s get a drink after Koyaanisqatsi at the Castro.
Let’s meet and tickle.
Let’s enjoy a cookie.
Let’s become friends and explore somewhere.
‘Let’s go now you and I’ always comes into my mind, but I’ve never broadcast an OK Cupid chat signal, I just respond. That night I scrolled until I found a handsome man who had written a benign invitation: ‘Let’s get a drink.’ I looked at his profile. He was Brazilian. I speak Portuguese. He played the drums. ‘Tattoos are a big part of my friends’ and family’s life,’ he wrote. Every era has its own utopian possibilities: ours is the chance to make our lives more bearable through technology.
The man generally held responsible for internet dating as we know it today is a native of Illinois called Gary Kremen, but Kremen was out of the internet dating business altogether by 1997, just around the time people were signing up for the internet en masse. Today he runs a solar energy financing company, is an elected official in Los Altos Hills, California and is better known for his protracted legal battle over the ownership of the pornography website sex.com than he is for inventing internet dating. Like many visionary entrepreneurs, Kremen doesn’t have very good management skills. His life has passed through periods of grave disarray. When I met him, at a conference on the internet dating industry in Miami last January, he asked where I was from. ‘Ah, Minnesota,’ he said: ‘Have you ever been to the Zumbro River?’ The Zumbro flows south of Minneapolis past Rochester, home of the Mayo Clinic. It turned out that Kremen had once driven, or been driven, into the river. He used to be addicted to speed.
In Miami Kremen recounted the genesis of his ideas about internet dating to a room full of matchmakers. In 1992, he was a 29-year-old computer scientist and one of the many graduates of Stanford Business School running software companies in the Bay Area. One afternoon a routine email with a purchase order attached to it arrived in his inbox. But it wasn’t routine: the email was from a woman. At the time, emails from women in his line of work were exceedingly rare. He stared at it. He showed the email to his colleagues. He tried to imagine the woman behind it. ‘I wonder if she would date me?’ Then he had another idea: what if he had a database of all the single women in the world? If he could create such a database and charge a fee to access it, he would most probably turn a profit.
In 1992, that couldn’t be done – modems transmitted information too slowly. Then there was the scarcity of women with online access. Because in its early days the internet was prevalent in worlds that had historically excluded women – the military, finance, mathematics and engineering – women were not online in big numbers. As late as 1996 America Online estimated that of its five million users, 79 per cent were men. In more administrative fields, however, a growing number of women had email.
So Kremen started with email. He left his job, hired some programmers with his credit card, and created an email-based dating service. Subscribers were given anonymous addresses from which to send out their profiles with a photo attached. The photos arrived as hard copy, and Kremen and his employees scanned them in by hand. Interested single people who did not yet have email could participate by fax. By 1994 modems had got faster, so Kremen moved to take his company online. He and four male partners formed Electric Classifieds Inc, a business premised on the idea of re-creating online the classifieds section of newspapers, beginning with the personals. They rented an office in a basement in San Francisco and registered the domain match.com…
Dear Diary: My Computer Fixed Me Up
October 26, 2012
I am not usually comfortable in a bar by myself, but I had been in San Francisco for a week and the apartment I sublet had no chairs in it, just a bed and a couch. My friends in town were married or worked nights. One Tuesday I had lentil soup for supper standing up at the kitchen counter. After I finished, I moved to the couch in the empty living room and sat under the flat overhead light refreshing feeds on my laptop. This was not a way to live. A man would go to a bar alone, I told myself. So I went to a bar alone.